Celtic author Matthew Marr on Jota, Saudi Arabia and the beautiful game

The likely transfer of Jota to Saudi Arabia is a Celtic example of the growing investment in that country (and region) in football. The question is: where will this end?

A look at Celtic’s competition history shows football’s direction of travel since its earliest days. And the logical conclusion of this involves competitions with teams from outwith Europe, including the Middle East.

Celtic v Aberdeen – Tomoki Iwata and Jota celebrate after the cinch Premiership match at Celtic Park, Saturday May 27, 2023. Photo Andrew Milligan

From the very start, football was a local game. Community teams were established based around issues such as streets, workplaces or to support charity in the area. As such – and partly related to transport issues – competitions tended to be local.

Before the formation of leagues, cups were the order of the day. For example, early Celtic sides played in matches such as the Glasgow Cup, Glasgow Charity Cup, Glasgow Exhibition Cup. Indeed the club’s first trophy was the Glasgow North Eastern Cup (won in 1889).

However over time, local competitions alone were not enough to sustain interest in football; the next stage was national competitions. The growth of train travel in the 1800s made it possible for teams – and even fans – to go further afield.

In Scotland, this originally meant the Scottish Cup, first won in 1874. Even local contests like the Glasgow Charity Cup often brought in regional teams (such as Dumbarton) or even sides from across the country, such as Hibernian.

From 1890 this became even more formalised and regular with the establishment of a Scottish Football League. This was largely to ensure more guaranteed money was raised by clubs but also again to ensure more interest in the game.

By the early 1900s, games in Scotland were not all that interested Celtic. Since the club’s earliest days, England had been a major destination. But soon continental Europe was also an option, with games held in places like Austria, Bohemia, Germany, France and Scandinavia.

Again following a pattern of expansion, by the mid-1900s clubs were no longer to simply play friendlies against clubs from other countries. The rise of airline travel also helped with this.

This led to the growth of European football, in which Celtic first played in 1962 (losing to Valencia in the Fairs Cup). Of course in 1967, this also gave Celtic their greatest day with the securing of the European Cup.

imago/Kicker/Metelmann D- Billy McNeill (re., Celtic), Armando Picchi (li., Inter) und Schiedsrichter Kurt Tschenscher (Mitte, Deutschland); 1966/1967, European cup, Celtic Glasgow – Internazionale Mailand 2:1 Lissabon Endspiel Fußball EC 1 Herren Mannschaft Portugal Gruppenbild Randmotiv Personen

But even this competition was not enough for some teams. Since then, the European Cup has been expanded into the Champions League, ironically moving the focus away from teams who are champions of their country, in favour of bigger clubs being almost guaranteed participation.

Europe has also not been enough to sustain interest – or revenue – for many teams. Celtic played in Australia last season and have an upcoming tour of the Far East. Various other European sides have done the same, or looked to the Americas as well.

The money available in the Middle East is not a surprise. It has seen major investment in European Leagues, notably teams such as PSG or Man City, and more recently Newcastle. What seems to have shocked many people is the willingness of these countries to start their own league.

For years now, European football has dominated world sport, attracting the best players and a global audience, most of whom have no real ties or connections to the clubs and players they watch. Instead, seeing exciting football from the best players is all that counts.

Whilst countries outwith Europe offering a ‘retirement home’ to top players has provoked little concern – China in recent years has done this a lot – there are more worries with younger players being attracted too. Celtic’s Jota is the latest example of this, but far from the most high profile.

Chairmen of clubs – and national leagues – where TV money is dominant (England being the most obvious one) will naturally worry. If the global TV audience cares little about the clubs they watch, it is easy to see them shifting their attention.

The most logical eventual conclusion of this is some form of ‘World Cup’ for clubs. If there is a growth of superstar clubs – ‘Galacticos’ across the world – there is likely to be an attempt by bigger European sides (and thus UEFA) to tap into this.

Short of setting up a world football league (and given the history of football, this is not impossible), cup contests at various times seem more likely. FIFA have already suggested at times having a two-yearly rather than four-yearly World Cup; such a club contest could happen instead.

Celtic and Everton stand in a line before the start of the Sydney Super Cup match between Everton and Celtic FC at Stadium Australia in Sydney on November 20, 2022.- (Photo by DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course this all assumes that Saudi investment in their own league can – and will – be sustained in the long run. Rather like Gretna in Scotland, clubs or leagues that require artificial investment to sustain survival can easily collapse.

Other countries have tried to rival European football. Historically the USA tried in the 1970s; China in more recent times have made their own efforts. And now Saudi Arabia wants to have a go. Only time will prove if this is truly a major long-term reform, or something more fleeting.

And what will the affect be on Celtic?

In terms of our business model, we certainly shouldn’t suffer. There is minimal TV investment and the club is self-sustaining. However it could well see more players departing not for the lure of English or European football but instead further away.

If a ‘World Cup’ of clubs is formed it is doubtful that Celtic would be there from the start. However if such an event happens – and is expanded – Celtic’s global role and current willingness to travel could see them involved.

Jota in Australia playing for Celtic

That raises the question about whether or not it is a positive step. Football is built on rivalry, of home and away fans attending (except Ibrox, of course) and that will never be the case for global football. If it does happen it will surely feel less like historic clubs and more capitalist franchises.

Without some sort of connection to the club, then football matters so much less.

Regardless of whether players like Jota will be less concerned about this, Celtic supporters’ buses for all will hopefully not become supporters’ airplanes for the very rich.

Because imagine the fights there will be over away ticket allocations when Celtic start to have regular matches in the Americas, Africa or Asia.

Matthew Marr – Follow Matthew on Twitter @hailhailhistory

Matthew’s outstanding debut Celtic book, The Bould Bhoys! “Glory to Their Name’ – The story of Celtic’s First League Title is currently available in the summer sale for just £11 plus postage from Celticstarbooks.com/shop

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

4 Comments

  1. A fine article as far as it went but no mention of the sportwashing aspects where mega-rich murderers aim to cleanse their reputations through flooding sports with offers they can’t refuse.
    When the key financial stat was the regular attendance figure fans had leverage to some extent. Now the power lies in the corporate areas – media, merchandising, sponsorship, etc – and the big leagues dominate over the smaller ones like ours.
    Celtic’s reputation, global reach and fan loyalty means that, somehow, we’ll end up in a more wealthy league unconstrained by geography but at what cost? If it meant a Saudi-type Newcastle takeover it would be too much for me no matter the rewards. We would have lost our Club for money. And to murderous thugs.

  2. David Potter on

    Newcastle United used to be my favourite English team when Jackie Milburn and Ronnie Simpson played. I’m not so sure these days!
    Can someone have a word with Jota and say “Dinnae be daft!”?